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Conversations of the Body: Psychosomatic Symptoms, Symbols, and Meanings

Research Paper - PDF Format

“The sorrow that has no vent in tears makes other organs weep.”
~ Henry Maudsley, 19th-century English anatomist (as cited in Finell, 1997, p. 19)

“…he can no more get rid of his psyche as he can get rid of his body, neither of which can be exchanged for another…. One can live in defiance of the demands of the body and ruin its health, and the same can be done in regard to the psyche.”
~ C. G. Jung (Jung, 1967, p. 346)

The conversation between the soma (body) and the psyche (soul) does not use spoken language (McDoughall, 1989) but instead engages a symbolically action-based expression. Meeting somatic expression in treatment with image- and art-based modalities provides mediation between the realms of the psyche and the soma. This paper explores literature, including psychoanalytic, specifically Jungian and post-Jungian, theoretical frameworks from which the formation of somatic symptoms arises and provides a specific case example in which image- and art-based interventions were utilized in the treatment of an individual exhibiting psychosomatic complaints or somatoform disorders. Attention is given to the significance of childhood trauma, family dynamics, and cultural norms of specialized treatment that may foster physical symptom formation and to how the role of imagery and art making in addressing somatic distress may in the future prove more central than peripheral to current Western medical and psychological treatment.

Keywords: psychosomatic, somatoform disorders, body/mind, psyche/soma, image, art, art therapy

Word count: 8,238

Credits: The paper, Conversations of the Body: Psychosomatic Symptoms, Symbols, and Meanings authored by Michelle L. Dean, MA, ATR-BC, LPC, CGP, HLM (DVATA) may be be purchased for credit or for research. Two Continuing Education clock hours or .2 CEU’s are available for this paper. 

Michelle L. Dean, MA, ATR-BC, LPC, CGP is an NBCC-Approved Continuing Education Provider (ACEP) #6302 and may offer NBCC-approved clock hours for events that meet NBCC requirements.  The ACEP solely is responsible for all aspects of the program. nbcc

This paper was previously accepted and presented at The American Art Therapy Association Conference in Albuquerque, NM as a part of a blind review selection process. Dean, M. L. (2007). Conversations of the body: Psychosomatic symptoms, the symbols, and the meanings. In The American Art Therapy Association Conference Proceedings: vol. 38, (pp. 151), Albuquerque, NM: The American Art Therapy Association.



Conversations of the Body: Psychosomatic Symptoms, Symbols, and Meanings
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Awakening Archetypal Imagination Through One-Canvas Painting at The Center for Psyche & the Arts, LLC

Guest Review

Guest submission by Adele Minton, President DVATA

I often feel that my own need to be creative gets pushed to the bottom of the list and I only look longingly at my art supplies. When a friend and former President of DVATA suggested I attend a painting workshop with her I readily accepted. It was at the home of Michelle and Mark Dean – The Center for Psyche & the Arts. If you’ve never attended an event at the Dean’s in Lansdowne, PA you owe it to yourself to go. The property is secluded, filled with trees, shrubbery, and other foliage. There is a pond and trails to follow. You would never imagine how close you are to Center City Philadelphia. The Arts and Crafts house is a work of art in itself with interesting architectural features, Mercer tile, and leaded glass windows, a wonderful place for a retreat and rejuvenation. Then there is Michelle’s cooking and baking; a feast lovingly prepared to nurture the body as well as the soul. We arrived on Friday evening, to refreshments, which could well have served as dinner. There was also a silent auction of books, fiber work, jewelry, and art pieces. 

DSC_0046The workshop, Awakening Archetypal Imagination Through One-Canvas Painting, was presented by Abbe Miller, MS, ATR-BC, LPC. We began with the lecture portion where we learned about the image making we were going to explore in the accessing of the healing forces of creativity. This would not be product-driven, but process-driven. The process made use of the core themes of archetypal imagination; exploring polarities – opposites, the search for connectedness, the desire for individuation and welcoming the mystery – something bigger than ourselves. The imagery was spontaneous and unplanned. This created conflict, which was welcomed, as it held the potential for learning about oneself as well as healing. We engaged in a short experiential to prepare for the next day. We chose colored tissue paper, one color for each of the four thematic constructs of archetypal imagination; ritual, rhythm, reason and relationship. We then assembled a collage type image with the papers and found objects.

 Breakfast on Saturday morning was a culinary delight. No one goes hungry at Michelle’s. I found I would need the energy. I hadn’t painted on canvas in a long time and I was really looking forward to it. As an art therapist, I spend so much time making it possible for others to create, I forget to offer an invitation to myself.  We began our paintings with the colors of the tissue paper we had chosen the night before. The goal was to cover the canvas with these colors. We were then invited to experience it and transform it. I was frustrated. I had no idea where this was going. How could you paint something without knowing what it was? What I did have was the time to let the paint and brushes take me on a journey. I kept at it, painting what I felt needed to be there. Abbe encouraged us to listen to the painting and to have compassion for that which emerges by embracing even what is not desired.

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My painting as it transformed…

We took photographs of the paintings and wrote journal entries at many points to be able to review the process.  Finally about 2:00 in the afternoon, fortified by Michelle’s delicious lunch and a relaxing walk through the grounds, my painting started to come together. It began to feel personal to me and had meaning. I had brought to the workshop some of the collage materials which I constantly collect. I am always hoping that I will have a chance to use them. Here it was. My painting had become my “Sanctuary” where I could go to be creative. I felt such a sense of pleasure and accomplishment. 

The conclusion of the workshop was the display of all of the paintings. We walked through the rooms, and observed our collective work. Each painting was accompanied by a sheet of paper on which we wrote a phrase pertaining to that painting. Abbe encouraged us to continue the painting process at home as the painting need not be finished but continue in transition. I, however, have left mine as it was at the end of the day filled with the feeling of contentment.

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders, similar to addictions, are disorders of relationship, with ourselves, the world around us, and our private internal world.  Eating disordered behaviors are symbolic manifestations of our thwarted willingness to nurture ourselves and fully participate in our lives and arise as a confluence of numerous factors including genetics, environmental stressors, such as pressures to live up to unrealistic expectations and ideals, as well as a disconnect to internal pain and suffering.  Our need to possess our bodies and use them as instruments to control our inner thoughts and feelings as well as our surroundings, rob us of the ability to relate to our bodies, our families, and our loved ones.  

Art psychotherapy capitalizes on the symbolic nature of eating disorders and provides a means of relatedness through visual and expressive art forms.  No prior art experience is necessary.  An experienced and skilled art psychotherapist is able to assist clients struggling with eating disordered behaviors by coordinating the labyrinth of medical and nutritional professionals, in order to provide a cohesive outpatient treatment team as needed.  Art psychotherapy is an honoring method for reconnecting and healing from the underlying contributing factors of the eating disordered behaviors.